By day, Joanne Butler works as a public health nurse… but by night (and lunchtimes, suppertimes, holidays, weekends – and just about any time!), she becomes chicken mom to three hens that live in a stylish, yet functional, chicken coop in her back yard.
“It all came about last April, when my daughter Maggie asked me what we were getting her for her birthday. I knew she was thinking about a lizard, but I’d been looking for a family project and had in fact already ordered the chickens, so I said, ‘chickens, you’re getting chickens!’ She couldn’t believe it.”
Joanne’s older daughter Mekaela was pretty excited by the prospect as well. “I didn’t think my parents would ever go for it – getting chickens,” she says. “I have friends who keep them and I thought it was an interesting idea, but I didn’t really think about having our own until my parents brought it up.”
And that’s how Harriett, Raya and Juniper became part of the Butler’s lives.
Joanne and her husband Dave bought the hens as day-old chicks and the family raised them in their home for the first two months of their lives. They expected it to be a lot of work, and it was, but what they didn’t expect was how attached they became to the little creatures.
“My girls never had dogs or cats growing up due to allergies, and these were the first animals they could pick up and cuddle,” says Joanne. “Even though they’re 19 and 21, the chicks brought the kid out in each of them.” She pauses, then adds with a grin, “truth be told, they brought out the kid in all of us.”
“When they were babies,” adds Maggie, “I made little diapers for them because they pooped everywhere! Didn’t work though – they would just kick them off and run away.”
Everyone got involved in raising and preparing the chicks for backyard life. Dave built the coop and according to Joanne, didn’t grumble once. In fact he dove right into the project with gusto. He made sure the coop was insulated, had a heat source, and equipped it with a cozy nesting area, a tree branch for a perch, as well as gravity feeders for the food and water.
Their water is changed three times a day and they get regular treats besides their grain diet, such as lettuce, apple cores, strawberry tops and other greens. One treat is a particular favourite prepared by Mekaela. “I mash banana and oatmeal together and they love it,” she says.
Egg marks the spot
“Our neighbours have been very supportive, and the neighbourhood kids love visiting the chickens,” says Dave. “Of course, the occasional gift of fresh-laid eggs doesn’t go astray!”
In fact, Joanne always has friends and family who would welcome a gift of eggs. “I recently gave some to an ailing friend of mine. Her family loves free-range eggs. She told me later that I really made her day.”
Joanne knows how that feels. She loves starting her day by petting the hens and gathering their warm eggs. And eating eggs has become a more personal experience, because she knows who laid them.
“I didn’t realize how being responsible for their wellbeing would connect me to them, and by extension, our food source. Our backyard chickens are just beautiful creatures. Very mild, bashful, and thankful. It brought home to me how important it is that we respect the gifts that animals give us. They deserve to be treated with kindness.”
The Butler chickens get out and have a bit of fun too. Over the winter, one even accompanied the family on a snow-shoeing outing – Harriett, who really enjoys ‘human time.’
“She’s game for anything,” says Maggie. “She follows us everywhere. Once she got over the feel of powdery snow on her feet, she really got into it.”
Work and Play
Joanne’s co-workers think her owning chickens is cute and they enjoy hearing stories about them. In fact, the first eggs she gave away were to the father of a friend and fellow Eastern Health employee. “Her dad grew up in Marystown. When I gave him the eggs, he got all nostalgic and started telling me stories about keeping chickens when he was growing up.”
As soon as Joanne and Dave get home from work, they let the hens out of the coop for a supervised wander in the back yard. “We don’t have choice but to let them out,” jokes Dave. “When we get home and look out that back window, they’re waiting for us, the people. And they’re always scratching at something. I’m going to let them rake the lawn in the fall.”
Owning chickens have enriched the Butlers’ lives. “They connect us as a family, with our neighbourhood, in our schools and workplaces, through the stories we share and the gifts they give,” says Joanne. “We’re looking forward to giving out their eggs this Easter Sunday, because as my mom always said, ‘the Lord loves a cheerful giver.’” ■
This story was written by Robyn Lush, a communications specialist with Eastern Health.